Album: Death Magnetic
Genre: Thrash / Heavy Metal
Release Date: September 12, 2008 (2008-09-12)
Label: Warner Bros., Vertigo, Mercury, Universal Music Japan
Producer: Rick Rubin
Forget the Year of the Rat…2008 has so far been the year of metal. Aside from the innumerable releases from many of the genre’s top acts, we’ve seen long dormant metal bands choosing this year as the time to make their big comeback. Cynic has returned to the studio after a 15 year hiatus; AC/DC has stepped back into the limelight with a new album; and other bands that have been long out of commission like Atheist and Wintersun are working on new material early into 2009. Hell, if all goes to plan then Chinese Democracy might actually be released this year! But I have no doubt that it is the recent return of Metallica that will have earned the most attention and sales by next year. Granted, they may have been gone for only a five-year gap, but since the last record they released was St. Anger, considered by many to be a utter travesty of chaos, muddled confusion, and making absolutely no sense whatsoever, the world definitely wanted to know whether or not the band could possibly make the saving throw and restore their former glory. So now that Death Magnetic has been out for a couple of months now, we can finally ask the ultimate question: has Metallica made a comeback?
Unfortunately, that still isn’t a very easy question to answer, as the definition of comeback isn’t very clear for a band such as Metallica. Keep in mind, this is a group of individuals whose in-fighting and apparent hatred for each other caused wave after wave of horrible decisions, both inside and outside the recording booth; undoubtedly that was part of the cause of St. Anger’s wretchedness and the infamous Napster incident. Now, they seem to have overcome the hurdle of growing older, come to grips with their themselves, and generally kept a level-headedness that is expected of good musicians. So when looked at in the terms of whether or not Metallica has salvaged the semblance of a successful career, then yes, Death Magnetic is a glorious revolution. When looked at musically, it is considerably less so. Granted, it fixes all the mistakes of the past release…but seemingly does so by retreating deep into the rusty catacombs of their old works, with little in the way of innovation. So if it’s not a failure and not a complete success, then we are left with a single word left to describe Death Magnetic, one that still serves as a painful blow to such a famous band: average.
Yes, for all the hyped shouts of glee that Metallica had finally become themselves again, they are still just average. And the key factor in that mediocrity is that the album is just plain dull. Dull, dull, dull, so very dull. Most riffs resemble watered-down versions of those we heard on Master of Puppets 22 years ago, the bass is practically inaudible (bringing flashbacks of …And Justice for All’s insipid production to out ears), and, as always, Lars Ulrich is an utter joke. In their attempts to reclaim the thrash metal throne, the basic and uninteresting drum beats just can’t help back drag down their efforts. If there’s anyone worse than Lars, though, it’s Hetfield; while he’s finally made the excellent decision to actually sing in tune again, the country-tinged yelps he makes just don’t fit here as well as they would on something like Load, and become annoying extremely quick. Oh, and forget about the lyrics; they’re useless. To cap off this ensemble of pain, we have a banal production that seems wafer-thin and tries to make up for it by compressing and distorting everything up to eleven. If you can believe this, the re-mastering of the tracks for Guitar Hero III actually doesn’t have this issue. And when the man behind the original mix is Rick Rubin, who once defined the sound of fellow thrash-legend Slayer on Reign in Blood…well, that’s just pathetic.
The real icing on the cake – with the cake being made of concrete and the icing made of sewage water, of course – is that Metallica has gone ahead and made all of their songs way too long. Again. The song structures sound like they would feel more at home on something like “The Black Album”, something succinct and catchy but never overly extensive. This isn’t Dream Theatre, you guys, and it certainly isn’t the best way to pretend like your living in the 80’s again. As a matter of fact, a lot of the worst aspects of this album feel like clip-ons designed to fool old, jaded fans into coming to their concerts again, the solos being a good example. They almost make me believe that the lack of solos on St. Anger was a good thing, now that their newest efforts of extended soloage feel incredibly sloppy and needless. In metal, they are usually there to form a climax to the song, to provide a reward for sitting through a long, tense build-up. Here, they plop them down before us, with no satisfaction to gained, as if they were only there because, well, they have to be.
The one exception to that rule is The Day That Never Comes, a song that brings back fond memories of Fade to Black and One…but only because it’s practically the same damn song. The quiet intro that segues into the heavy chorus, a machine-gun riff that pops up after two verses, and a long solo-heavy segment to wrap things up...sounds awfully familiar to me. Granted, it’s a formula that still works, but it’s also a good representation of how little Metallica desired to re-invent themselves on this release. There’s a fleeting glimpse of advancement on the The Unforgiven III, which opens with some mournful piano-playing; unfortunately the interlude is quickly forgotten, and the song becomes a basic ballad (which, thankfully, doesn’t really try at all to sound like Unforgiven I or II…why on Earth either song would need another sequel is anyone’s guess).
Then there’s an instrumental towards the end, because, well, you need one of those for a comeback album too. Now it is certainly the longest song on the album, clocking in at almost exactly 10 minutes, but it’s also the only song that varies enough to warrant such a time frame. It’s not quite The Call of Ktulu, but it will do. The rest of the songs are mostly full-speed-ahead, riff-tastic monsters, with mixed results. The opening track is notable, kicking things off with a heart-beat and an acoustic segment that slowly builds up into a trademark Metallica guitar explosion; there’s no denying that they worked hard to make the first impression memorable. By contrast, you have songs like The End of the Line and The Judas Kiss that really don’t do anything memorable, and fall flat on their faces. All Nightmare Long stands tall among these because it cops a few phrases straight from Slayer’s playbook; but hey, if they needed to copy someone for some maniac thrash moments, at least their stealing from the right pages. Finally, My Apocalypse (bearing no similarity to the Arch Enemy single of the same name…oddly enough) is perhaps the most bearable track on here because it is by far the shortest, at a mere 5 minutes. It also packs the most intensity and speed, making it a great way to close this highly anticipated effort.
But despite all the good moments Death Magnetic can muster, none of them are anything we haven’t heard before and better…and none are good enough to save this album. If the hype is pushed aside – and even as we acknowledge just how much an improvement the album is from the past decade of Metallica bloopers – we still see a work whose only worthy footnote is that it comes from Hetfield and crew, who once ruled the world and conquered the stars. Of course, if you haven’t picked this up already, I myself was never too interested in the band’s music itself, but more so the social stigma that followed them like a pestilence since the 90’s. It was truly enthralling to see their members devolve into whiny rock-pop babies, to hear their fans whimpering and futile cries while they softly cuddled their old copies of Ride the Lightning in the corner of their parent’s basements…now those days are largely gone, and the music can just hardly hold itself up better for the effort.
Funnily enough, I can’t help but feel like this is the album that should’ve generated the dreaded “sell-out” label that they’ve been such good poster-boys for up until now. St. Anger may have been poor, but it was also different, and while the music sucked, the passion was there. Now there is no life left in the poor souls down at Metallica headquarters, just aimless attempts to regain a triumphant feeling of world domination they once had. And if that’s exactly what you wanted or expected, then Death Magnetic will have you squealing with delight. If you wanted an epic on par with their early works, then you’re left out in the cold. If you wanted a continuation of the style defined on St. Anger…well then nothing quite compares to the miserable, hollow shell of a life you live. My point is that the album satisfies many, but can't please the more hardened or caring of music connoisseurs, meaning that it is safe but ultimately nothing of significance. Give your attention to the better metal releases that have been so harshly ignored these past few months instead.